How our brains receive messages & implications

Do you have trouble communicating your ideas or land your sales pitch? Do you understand why human attention is fleeting & difficult to maintain? Read on because this entry may give you an answer.

Before I move on, I want to give a shout out to the book “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff. Everything I am saying below is based on this really interesting book that can have a tremendous impact on readers’ professional and personal lives.

Humans brains drive communication as that’s where messages are developed, presented, received and processed. Anatomists will say that a human brain is highly complex, but for sake of simplicity, consider it having three main parts: Neocortex, Midbrain and The Old Brain or Crocodile Brain.

The human brain consists of Neocortex, Mid-brain and the Crocodile Brain
Figure 1 – The three parts of a human brain. Source: Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

The Old Brain/Crocodile Brain is responsible for the initial basic filtering of all incoming messages. As a physically weak and small species compared to others in the wild, our ancestors, for their survival, relied on ability to detect threats early. This Crocodile Brain is the part that does that detection job and tells the rest of the body whether something is a threat or not. Over the ensuing thousands of years, while our human body evolved a lot with the time and communication became more sophisticated and nuanced than just “yeah it’s dangerous/no it’s actually friendly” responses, this Old Brain hasn’t, staying largely as primitive as it was.

Above this Crocodile Brain are Mid Brain, which “determines the meaning of things and social situations”, and the Neocortex, which evolved with our society over time and allows us to reason and think in complexity. Neocortex is where we develop ideas, reasons to back those ideas up and language to present . In other words, everything that we can’t do with Crocodile Brain.

You can already see the root-cause reason why communication fails sometimes. In any exchange, a message that is developed by the most advanced or smartest part of the brain is initially perceived by the 5-million-years-old most primitive part. If the amygdala part of the Crocodile Brain considers a message as threatening to our survival, it will essentially shut down the brain and ignore the message in question. If the message is too novel and complex, the Crocodile Brain, which is high-maintenance, dumb compared to the Neocortex and lazy as it doesn’t like to work a lot, will get bored and refuse to let it go to the upper parts of our brain.

That’s why professional writers say that the beginning of an article or paragraph is super important in persuading us to keep reading. We tend to lose focus and attention quickly if something is not simple, easy to understand nor concrete. Our Crocodile Brain will shut down if it is forced to process jargon, remotely unknown words or abstract concepts.

That’s why you hear some professional presenters want us to open every presentation with a bang, something make us laugh, something that we can relate to or something that is positively shocking yet concrete (like a statistics). If a presentation’s first few slides don’t have a shock-and-awe element, the Crocodile Brain will get bored and attention will wane.

That’s why when a chart or a table contains loads of data and information, it’s better to highlight the part where audience should focus on. Remember, the Crocodile Brain is lazy. If you ask it to scan a lot of information quickly, it will get bored.

That’s why a relatable and known brand in business is a highly valuable asset. The Crocodile Brain will be more at ease when it recognizes a familiar logo or a familiar brand name.

That’s why in some cases even well-intentioned & well-reasoned messages aren’t received. They never get to Neocortex (Your bosses are NOT that dumb to not understand you. They just don’t receive the communication the way we want them to).

In short, what makes pitches difficult is that our highly developed Neocortex has to persuade a lazy, primitive and dumb Crocodile Brain, which only likes clear, simple, straightforward and friendly ideas. All the communication tips or recommendations are aimed to do one thing and one thing only: to get through the Crocodile Brain and to the Neocortex without triggering fear. There are tons and tons of tips and tricks out there on improving communication. I won’t be able to get to them all in this post. I hope that I gave you the root-cause problem so that you can come up with solutions accordingly.

Is BNPL replacing Credit Cards?

BNPL is a red-hot phenomenon now both in the financial and retail worlds. Because most BNPL transactions are funded using debit cards or checking accounts rather than credit cards, one of the main debates is whether it is replacing or will replace credit cards.

When asked about BNPL and its impact on credit card balance, the CFO of Discover, John Greene, had this to say:

What we’ve seen to date is consumer appeal has been on the lower credit quality folks. I think there will be a natural evolution that, that will come up the credit spectrum. We’ve also seen in terms of the firm, some higher credit quality customers actually electing to do a buy now pay later transaction, whether it’s paid in for or something else.

We haven’t seen any discernible impact whatsoever. So where I would likely see that is through new customer acquisition, and that’s — that activity has been very, very robust. The balance sheet on existing customers here, so loans, that’s been impacted by stimulus and kind of how they’ve allocated their dollars within their household. Nothing from the details we’ve looked at that would indicate that buy now pay later’s impacting the portfolio.

Discover Financial Services – Barclays Virtual Global Financial Services Conference

Echoing that sentiment, Brian Wenzel, CFO of Synchrony Bank, said there was no visible impact from BNPL on their credit card portfolio:

Yes. So first, we have studied buy now, pay later impact over the last couple of years as it really has grown, and we partnered with an outside firm to kind of do a deep analysis really on the — at the customer account level to kind of understand the behavior patterns it has. So when we see it and the data we’ve seen, I think, 75% of the buy now, pay later accounts are funded out of a debit account, right? So the view is that they are — you’re using cash and taking what would be a debit transaction through the buy now, pay later. We then looked — and really the impact of our business, and we looked at it and talked a little bit about it in Q&A last week about the impact on our business.

Are we seeing anything that says buy now, pay later is impacting credit? And so when you look at it versus a cohort population of our Mastercard as well as our Dual Cards, we see a low penetration, and we have not seen any changes certainly with how they use credit with us. In fact, they are more engaged with us than our average customer. They generate more revenue for us, but we have not seen any change. So as we look at it — when we look at applications come through, go over some of these products are offering, we have not seen any change, discernable changes.

So when you think about the impact to us in credit, we don’t really see it yet. We think that there is a shift that’s happening probably from cash as a tender type. And I think this is where the merchants and our partners are taking a step back. They are saying, “Yes, we understand your offer, consumers like it. But is this driving incrementality for us, true conversion?

Synchrony Financial – Barclays Virtual Global Financial Services Conference

One may argue that the main business of Discover and Synchrony is credit card so they had to put on a brave face. They might have. But since they are publicly traded companies; which often require them to be truthful to investors, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, what they say seems to be in line with what Marqeta sees in their 2021 State of Credit report.

Recently, Marqeta released a 2021 State of Credit Report with some interesting insights into how consumers in the U.S, the U.K and Australia use BNPL and credit cards. The report is based on a survey of 3,500 people across three countries. Here are my take-aways regarding consumer preferences in the U.S:

  • 78% of respondents in the U.S use credit cards while 25% actively use BNPL
  • 50% of U.S consumers use credit cards because of rewards, something that is still a weakness of BNPL providers but they are working on it
  • “60% of U.S. 18-25-year-olds said they made more than five purchases on their credit card online each week, compared with 19% of 50-65-year-olds”
  • “79% of consumers surveyed who use BNPL reported having three or less BNPL plans open at a given time, with 45% of people reporting their average BNPL purchase at less than $100.”
  • “Older consumers however, were decidedly against, with survey respondents 51-65 years old voting overwhelmingly (63%) in favor of the credit card-first status quo.”
  • “Americans were again slightly worse off, with 30% responding that they’d struggled to meet payments”

3 out of 4 U.S consumers use credit cards. 60% of the younger segment use their cards regularly every week while the older and wealthier crowd want to keep the status quo. That, to me, is the sign that the credit card business is still healthy and well, at least for now. By no means do I insist that BNPL doesn’t have a chance to overtake credit cards. More and more issuers such as Citi, Amex or Chase introduced the ability to put qualified transactions on installment plans (BNPL). All the major retailers in the country allow shoppers to have a payment plan. Even Apple is reportedly working on their own version of BNPL. Who knows what the future holds? But for now, all signs point to a healthy credit card industry holding their ground.

Some thoughts on new benefits for Visa U.S Credit Cardholders

Per Visa:

Visa Inc. (NYSE: V) today announced the addition of Shipt, Skillshare and Sofar Sounds – as exclusive benefits – for Visa’s U.S. Consumer Credit cardholders. Eligible cardholders can now get a free Shipt membership to receive free same-day delivery on groceries and household essentials on orders over $35; boost their creativity through Skillshare’s online learning community; and get access to presale tickets plus be eligible for a free concert ticket while discovering Sofar Sounds’ global community of music lovers.

Specifically, the benefits vary from one product to another. Signature/Infinite credit cardholders will be able to enjoy more benefits from Visa than other cardholders:

ShiptSkillshareSofar Sounds
InfiniteUp to three years of free Shipt membership (normally $99
 per year)
Free membership for three months plus 30% off annual renewalsSeven-day Visa Exclusive Presale to Sofar-presented events, plus a free ticket with each purchase of one or more tickets to a show during the presale window
SignatureThree months of free Shipt membership, then nine months of membership at 50% offFree membership for three months plus 20% off annual renewalsSame as Infinite
OthersOne month of free Shipt membership, then three months of membership at 50% offSame as Infinite but limit two free tickets per year

You may wonder now if you are qualified for Infinite or Signature benefits. Infinite cards are typically high-end premium cards with a significant annual fee such as Chase Sapphire Reserve or U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card. Hence, if you are already paying in the hundreds of dollars a year for a credit card, chances are that you have an Infinite card.

It’s a bit easier to get a Signature card. Every year, issuers have campaigns to increase credit limit for qualified customers. There are two reasons for it: 1/ a higher credit limit can stimulate more spend from customers and 2/ a Signature card earns an issuer more interchange revenue than a Classic card. One of the key criteria for an upgrade is that customers must have less than $5,000 in credit limit, which is the threshold for a card to be considered by Visa to be Signature. After an upgrade, a Signature card will have more than $5,000 in credit limit.

Therefore, if you have a good credit history and standing, ask your issuer to increase your credit limit to above $5,000. Do check with them if it means you are getting a Signature card. Each issuer will have a different set of criteria to look at, in addition to credit score, to see if they will upgrade your account. There may be a hard/soft credit pull involved and as a result, your credit score may take a hit. However, if your monthly balance doesn’t change, a bigger credit limit means that your utilization would be lower and hence, your credit score would bounce back soon.

I don’t know the exact agreement between Visa and these companies, but if I have to guess, it won’t be Visa that subsidizes these benefits. Visa only earns a tiny piece from every transaction (like 0.2% give or take). The maths don’t add up for them to subsidize these benefits. On the other hand, the likes of Shipt, Skillshare and Solar Sounds have a perfect partner in Visa to market their services and acquire new users. Visa is the biggest card network in the world and in the U.S. It will be highly challenging to find an issuer that doesn’t have a Visa product. After this announcement, issuers will include the new benefits in their marketing: social media, direct mails, emails or websites. Credit card is a highly competitive and fragmented business. Every player pours millions of dollars into marketing and user acquisition every year. Hence, the names of Shipt or Skillshare will be more popular. I also think they will get more new users to the door. The difficult part is to make them stay. But hey, if you want to keep someone close, they have to be familiar with you first. This is about it.

For Visa, this is a good move to deepen their moat. Not only does the network have the biggest pool of merchants AND consumers in the U.S, but they also have the same advantage globally. While powerful, this moat doesn’t guarantee future successes. Visa has competitors circling. Apart from the traditional competitors such as Discover, Mastercard or American Express, there are new challengers on the horizon such as this startup Banked from the UK as well as alternative payment methods such as BNPL via ACH. This new slate of benefits is a plus for consumers as well as card issuers, at no additional cost. It is aimed to acquire new cardholders and keep them on the network as long as possible.

When reading reports, read the footnotes!

It’s not natural for most people to pay close attention to the small fine print in the footnotes. When I was at school, nobody told me about it. But in some cases, what the footnotes contain is very valuable and can change the information that goes before it. In this post, I’ll give you an example of how a $27 billion publicly traded company (Synchrony Bank) manipulates numbers to their advantage and how paying attention to the footnotes can help you jump through that manipulation.

Per Synchrony’s Investor Day Presentation

Synchrony shows their acquisition cost and customer lifetime value of their co-branded credit card portfolio

The point of the upper slide is that Synchrony Bank is more efficient than its peers in acquiring new and more valuable accounts. Well, there are some caveats. First, it may well be true that it costs Synchrony less to acquire new co-branded accounts. They partner with some of the most popular brands such as Amazon or PayPal. They don’t need to send out a lot of direct mails or run plenty of digital ads. However, I strongly suspect that they will have to pay these brands a high finders fee as in every time an account is opened, the brands receive a fee. In these cases, I won’t be surprised if the fee is north $100. Technically speaking, the finder fee isn’t classified as an acquisition expense, but to ordinary audience who doesn’t work in banking, the net financial impact isn’t clear from this presentation.

Second, the comparison data is from Argus. Argus collects data from different issuers in the country and shares back to each participant its benchmark’s data. It can be a very useful tool as management teams. The main drawbacks of Argus are 1/ as the identity of the participating issuers is kept anonymous, one doesn’t really know exactly who they are compared against; 2/ Argus data is on a quarterly basis and usually lags behind by 90 days. In other words, since we are not wrapping up Q3 2021 yet, the most up-to-date data in Argus should be for Q1 2021, but I know from personal experience that as of this writing, benchmark data is only up to Q4 2020. My point is that it’s unclear from the presentation that Synchrony is comparing data from the same period.

Last but not least, the way they calculate Customer Lifetime Value is a bit flattering. The footnote, if I interpret it correctly, states that they look at the CLTV of accounts that are on the books for 10 years. In the credit card world, if a customer stays with you for a long time, usually it means that customer is more valuable than shorter-tenured ones. Hence, it seems Synchrony looks at the CLTV of only some of their best customers, instead of the general population of their co-branded cards.

I’ll give you another example of the importance of footnotes. From the same presentation by Synchrony:

Synchrony tries to show how they manage risk

The point that Synchrony is trying to make here is that they grow their portfolio responsibly by curtailing the riskier customer group (subprime, which include the Low and Medium). The confusion comes from how Subprime is defined. In their explanation, Synchrony considers anybody with VantageScore less than 650 to be Subprime. According to The Balance, Vantage Score 3.0 and 4.0 use the same tiers as FICO score and Subprime refers to people with less than 600 in Vantage Score. To the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Subprime includes anyone with less than 620 in credit score. To Experian, the threshold is 670. The lack of a universal definition of Subprime means that Synchrony is likely not trying to manipulate the audience in this particular case. Rather, if somebody wants to use this information, they should really need to look at how Synchrony defines Subprime. Otherwise, any comparison would be flawed.

These are just two small examples of how critical information is sometimes buried in the footnotes. There are plenty of other examples. Everyone that publishes something has an agenda and employs tactics to highlight such an agenda and tuck away what can seed doubt. We should strive to be vigilant and mindful while reading others’ reports.

Truths about that 6% of People with iPhones in the US Use Apple Pay In-Store

A new article from PYMNTS claimed that only 6% of iPhone users use Apple Pay in stores.

As someone who works in the credit card industry and a follower of Apple, I have a few points to make with regard to this article. Per PYMNTS.com

Seven years post-launch, new PYMNTS data shows that 93.9% of consumers with Apple Pay activated on their iPhones do not use it in-store to pay for purchases. That means only 6.1% do. After seven years, Apple Pay’s adoption and usage isn’t much larger than it was 2015 (5.1%), a year after its launch, and is the same as it was in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic.

That finding is based on PYMNTS’ national study of 3,671 U.S. consumers conducted between Aug. 3-10, 2021.

First, I am naturally skeptical of surveys. To properly design and execute a representative survey whose results you can use to project trends both an art and a science. In other words, it’s difficult and tricky. Without knowing the specifics of the surveys that PYMNTS used over the years, I can’t really say for sure that their data is 100% accurate or representative. For instance, did these survey represent the U.S population demographically? We all know that older folks tend to be more reluctant towards technology than the younger crowds are. What if some of these surveys were more skewed towards Baby Boomer or late Generation X?

With that being said, let’s assume that these surveys were properly designed and conducted as there is no reason to believe that they weren’t either. Still, there are some important context points that I’d love to discuss. The U.S is traditionally slow in adopting tap-to-pay payments, compared to other developed countries in Europe. Here is what Visa had to say at the RBC Capital Markets Financial Technology Conference back in June 2021:

Canada is almost 80% of all tap to pay of all face-to-face transactions, almost 80% are tap to pay. In Europe, it’s over 80%. Australia, it’s almost 100%. Across Asia, it’s over 50%. And in the United States, it’s now over 10% from basically a dead stop a couple of years ago. So right now in the U.S., we’re a bit over 1 in 10 transactions with tap to pay, 1 in 10 of all face-to-face transactions of tap to pay. About 350 million cards, last time I looked, 268 of the top 300 merchants, 23 of the top 25 issuers are issuing contactless.

What Visa essentially said there is that mobile wallet transactions in stores basically didn’t exist two years ago. The low adoption isn’t confined to Apple alone. It’s applied to all mobile wallets on the market. Hence, it’s not a surprise that only a small number of consumers used Apple Pay in stores. Since then, the tap-to-pay transaction share has increased a lot, but from contactless cards, not from mobile wallets.

The issuer where I work only introduced contactless cards in August 2019. The roll-out was gradual as we enabled the feature only on new cards and renewal replacements. Before August 2019, we saw contactless transactions make up only a low single digit percentage of all transactions. After the change, there was an increase in contactless transaction share, but it mostly came from contactless cards (as in you tap a plastic card against a card reader). It makes sense for several reasons: 1/ Using a plastic card, whether it’s debit or credit, is a habit. It’s unreasonable to expect consumers to change their habit overnight; 2/ To some consumers, it’s just not convenient to take out a phone to pay. During the pandemic, we all had to wear a mask. That contributed to the inconvenience as most Apple Pay transactions have to be approved by using Face ID (few iPhones in circulation are too old for Face ID); 3/ Sometimes, the card readers just don’t accept mobile wallet transactions. I personally experienced it myself several times when a technical glitch forced me to pull out my wallet and use my plastic. Even when card readers are to become more reliable & friendlier with mobile wallets and the pandemic closes out soon, the current habit of flashing a plastic card in stores won’t go away any time soon. It’s a painstaking process that will take quite a while and it’s not even a guarantee that it will change significantly at all.

The low adoption of mobile wallets in general leads me to my next point: how is Apple Pay compared to other wallets? The article by PYMNTS did bring up some comparison between Apple Pay and its peers:

Today, Apple Pay remains the biggest in-store mobile wallet player, with 45.5% share of mobile wallet users. Over the last seven years, the total amount of Apple Pay transactions at U.S. retail stores has increased from an estimated $5 billion in 2015 to $90 billion in 2021.

Although that growth is commendable, it is largely the result of more people with iPhones upgrading to newer models and more merchants taking contactless payments, both leading to a general increase in retail sales – 12.9% greater in 2021 than 2019. But to be successful, innovation must solve a problem, fix a source of friction or improve an experience that is so painful that consumers or businesses are motivated to switch.

The article is so focused on Apple Pay that it missed two important points. One is that Apple Pay isn’t Apple’s main business. It may well be in the future, but it surely hasn’t been since 2014. Why is it Apple’s fault that the adoption of tap-to-pay payments in the whole U.S is low? It’s not really reasonable to expect Apple to go all out and force a new habit on consumers when there is little financial reward. The other miss is that if only 6 out of 100 people used Apple Pay, which captured 92% of all mobile wallet payments using debit card in the U.S in 2020, what does it say for others? 1% or lower? Yes, 6% adoption is low for the most valuable company in the world, but in the grand scheme of things and in comparison with its peers, that figure suddenly looks significantly different, does it?

The last point I want to make is that it is NOT comprehensive and helpful to look at the mobile wallet share of in-store transactions. What about consumers who use Apple Pay or other wallets for online transactions? How many transactions do Apple users make using Apple Pay on their phones or through the App Store? How many transactions on web pages are through Apple Pay? Said another way, is Apple Pay more suited for online transactions than for in-store payments? And PYMNTS is judging Apple Pay on something that it’s not meant to address in the first place?

In short, I believe that this article from PYMNTS is useful to some extent as we have a reference with regard to in-store mobile wallet payments. However, the entire write-up lacks important context that can lead readers to misguided conclusions. My hope is that the whole conversion is more balanced now with what I mentioned above.

Disclaimer: I own a position on Square, Apple and PayPal.

PayPal made strides towards being a Super App

PayPal amplified its efforts to become THE Super App for consumers’ financial needs with several big announcements in the past few days.

  • Giant Eagle enables PayPal and Venmo at all of its 474 stores. This is the first grocery chain in the country that accepts PayPal and Venmo at checkout. To complete an in-store order, users can simply open their PayPal or Venmo app and have the QR code shown in the app scanned by the store cashier. As an incentive to promote the adoption of this feature, PayPal will send $10 in cash back to anyone after they make the first purchase of at least $40 at Giant Eagle
  • ACI Worldwide partners with PayPal to bring mobile wallet options to ACI’s bill clients. ACI Worldwide is a leading company in real-time digital payments with numerous clients in various industries such as consumer finance, government, education, healthcare, insurance, telephone and cable, and utilities. By virtue of the new collaboration, bill payers can now make payments on ACI’s client platforms through their PayPal or Venmo wallet
  • Yesterday, Fiserv announced a new feature that enables business-to-consumer payments deposited to PayPal or Venmo accounts. PayPal or Venmo users will be able receive payments from gig economy companies, insurance firms or tax refunds from the federal governments to their PayPal or Venmo account
  • Last but definitely not least, starting October 1, 2021, the company is going to drop late fees for BNPL customers globally.

PayPal is one of a few companies that are known globally. Anyone that regularly shops online must be familiar with their iconic blue button on online merchants’ checkout page. Strong in processing online payments, PayPal; however, hasn’t been as popular with in-store checkout. Personally, I rarely see a store that accepts PayPal as a payment option. The company is well aware of that weakness and planning to address it. In the very last earnings call, the CEO mentioned that they were going to aggressively go into stores. The partnership with Giant Eagle is proof of that. Even though there are only 474 stores in the chain, this is a great first step. I imagine that PayPal will try to use data acquired from this partnership to demonstrate to prospect partners the benefits of allowing PayPal products at checkout. Plus, grocery is a staple category to consumers. If they are accustomed to checking out with PayPal/Venmo, they will be more likely to use it for other purchases as well.

PayPal has been growing its bill payment service for a while. In the previous earning call, the company cited growing bill payment volume as one of the reasons for its decreasing take-rate. The partnership with ACI Worldwide will likely grow the processing volume yet suppress that take-rate further for the foreseeable future. ACI Worldwide supports around 4,000 customers in the US and according to one study, Americans spends $2.75 trillion a year on recurring bills. Even if this move helps PayPal gain 1% of that volume, that’s another $27.5 billion a year added to the company’s U.S bill payment volume. Given that it processes $350+ billion in a quarter WORLDWIDE for ALL services, I suspect that’s the lift the management will be pleased with. I really like this partnership with ACI. Instead of going out there and going through hoops to work with numerous companies, PayPal can now be available on 4,000 checkout pages in a short amount of time. Bill payments are such a critical function in most adults’ life. Convincing consumers to use PayPal/Venmo to pay bills will create a usage habit that is difficult to break.

Here is PayPal from its 2020 annual report:

Transaction expense is primarily composed of the costs we incur to accept a customer’s funding source of payment. These costs include fees paid to payment processors and other financial institutions to draw funds from a customer’s credit or debit card, bank account, or other funding source they have stored in their digital wallet. Transaction expense also includes fees paid to disbursement partners to enable a transaction. We refer to the allocation of funding sources used by our consumers as our “funding mix.” The cost of funding a transaction with a credit or debit card is generally higher than the cost of funding a transaction from a bank or through internal sources such as a PayPal or Venmo account balance or PayPal Credit.

Hence, the more transactions are funded through bank accounts or PayPal balance, the better it is financially for PayPal. Asking consumers to transfer funds from a checking account to a PayPal/Venmo before making a purchase using that balance is futile. It’s inconvenient and cumbersome. The collaboration with Fiserv helps PayPal go around that challenge. Additionally, having a balance motivates users to be more active. If a friend of mine sends $50 to my PayPal account, I will be more willing to use it for my next purchase than I would without that $50 balance. A few months ago, Square bought the tax business of Credit Karma and integrated it into Cash App. I wrote in my thought on the acquisition

In essence, it benefits Square when customers have balance in their Cash App. The more balance there is, the more useful Cash App is to customers and the more revenue & profit Square can potentially earn. I imagine that once Credit Karma’s tax tool is integrated into Cash App, there will be a function that directs tax returns to customers’ Cash App. When the tax returns are deposited into Cash App, customers can either spend them; which either increases the ecosystem’s value (P2P), or deposit the fund back to their bank accounts. But if customers already direct the tax returns to Cash App in the first place, it’s unlikely the money will be redirected again back to a checking account. As Cash App users become more engaged and active, Square will look more attractive to prospect sellers whose business yield Square a much much higher gross margin than the company’s famous Cash App.

The integration of Credit Karma Tax into Cash App did happen. The same logic can be applied here. In addition to lowering its transaction cost, PayPal benefits in different ways from having more balance in its wallet. Instead of acquiring a tax filing business like Square did with Credit Karma, PayPal collaborates with Fiserv to enable not only tax refunds, but also paycheck deposit or insurance payments. Less capital, more applications. What’s not to like?

The BNPL market is hotter than ever. Recently, Square paid an enormous sum of $29 billion for Afterpay. Merchants are racing to enable the feature due to the fear of missing out. Banks like Citi, Chase or Amex scramble to offer their own BNPL version. Even Apple is rumored to develop its own service for Apple Pay transactions. PayPal launched its PayPal in 4 in August 2020. Since then, the service has processed more than $3.5 billion in transaction volume, $1.5 billion of which took place in the last three months alone. Yesterday, with its policy to drop late fees for consumers, PayPal took a bold step towards gaining more market share in this red hot market.

Let’s talk quickly about how BNPL providers make money. There are some providers like Afterpay or Klarna that allow consumers to break down a purchase into several interest-free payments. To generate revenue, these providers charge consumers a fee for every late payment and merchants a fee that is much higher than the usual interchange rate in exchange for new business. On the other end of the spectrum, there are other companies like Affirm that charge consumers no fees, but levy interest on the purchase. For PayPal, it originally belonged to the first group of BNPL firms that offer interest-free payment plans. As a late comer, PayPal lets merchants use this service at no additional charge, apart from the usual commission rate. Today, to attract the end consumers, PayPal decides to drop late fees, a move that will force other competitors to copy to avoid losing grounds. I expect them to follow suit soon. Late fees only make up 9% of Afterpay’s revenue. The problems for these pure BNPL players are that 1/ they don’t have multiple touchpoints to consumers like PayPal and 2/ they are already not making money. Dropping late fees will make the road to profitability even tougher. For the likes of Affirm, I mean, what can they offer consumers and merchants that PayPal can’t?

All of these developments have one common goal: to make PayPal the go-app application for all things financial for us consumers. Just take a look at the breadth of services that PayPal can offer below. There are few companies that can do the same, let alone having 32 million merchants on the network and a brand name that is widely recognized across the globe.

PayPal's Consumer Services
PayPal’s Consumer Services

I expect in the next few quarters, PayPal will have:

  • A higher TPV
  • A lower take-rate due to more bill payments, P2P, especially from Venmo, the drop of BNPL late fees and less reliance on eBay
  • Higher loss rates
  • Higher cost of transactions simply because PayPal has to compensate the likes of ACI, Fiserv and Giant Eagle
  • Higher marketing expense as % of revenue

However, as a shareholder, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the company’s outlook with these moves. I look forward to hearing the management team discuss the ramifications in the future earnings calls.

My notes from 2021 Debit Issuer Study

Every year, Pulse, a Discover company, publishes a Debit Issuer Study, which covers the debit card landscape in the U.S. This year’s version is the 16th annual edition of the study and comprises of data from 48 financial institutions of different sizes in the country. If you are interested in the payments as well as financial services world, you should have a look at this study. Below are a few things that stood out the most to me, accompanied by some of my own comments

Debit spend per active account increased as growth in ticket size more than offset the decline in transactions

Unsurprisingly, stay-at-home orders last year curtailed debit transactions as stores were closed and folks were forced to remain at home. As a result, 2020 saw a decline of 2.5% in the number of debit transactions, the first contraction of the industry ever. Most of the damage took place in Q1 and especially Q2 before the use of debit cards recovered in the back half of the year. Compared to 2019, last year saw an increase in debit spend per active account, from $12,407 to $13,550. The increase resulted from 10.5% growth in ticket size despite the drop of 1.3% in the number of monthly transactions per active card.

Annual Spend Per Active Debit Card Increased In 2020 By 9.2%
Figure 1 – Annual Spend Per Active Debit Card Increased In 2020 By 9.2%. Source: Pulse

Whether issuers are subject to the regulated interchange cap determines their unit economics

For issuers with $10 billion in assets or more, they are subject to regulations that cap debit interchange rates. Before we move forward, let’s take a step back to revisit what interchange rate is. Every time a transaction takes place, the merchant involved has to pay a small fee to the bank that issues a debit/credit card that the consumer in question uses. The fee is calculated as % of the transaction value and usually determined by networks like Visa, Mastercard, American Express or Discover. In this case, the Federal Government caps the interchange rate for big issuers that have $10 billion+ in assets. According to the 2021 Debit Issuer Study, exempt issuers earned 42.5 cents every transaction, compared to 23.7 cents for regulated issuers. Due to this difference, exempt issuers generated almost twice as big as regulated issuers in annual gross revenue per active debit account ($132 vs $71).

Exempt issuers earn much higher interchange revenue for debit transactions than regulated issuers
Figure 2 – Exempt Issuers Earn 42.5 Cents Per Every Debit Transaction. Source: Pulse

This is one of the reasons why neobanks can offer debit cards with rewards and no fees. Neobanks or challenger banks are usually technology startups working with exempt issuers to offer banking services. The startup in this partnership takes care of the marketing and the product development while the exempt issuer rents out its banking license and deals with all the banking activities such as underwriting, regulatory compliance or settlement. Because the exempt issuer earns higher interchange rates, it can afford to share part of that interchange revenue with its startup partner which, in turn, uses that revenue to fund operations and generate profit. However, I wonder if it’s really fair when a neobank or a financial service company becomes so big while still taking advantage of this “loophole”. Take Square as an example. It’s a $120 billion publicly traded company. It works with Marqeta and by extension Sutton Bank, which is exempted from the regulations over interchange rates, to offer Cash App. Is it truly fair for Square to be able to leverage this loophole when it has a much bigger valuation than many banks with more than $10 billion in assets?

The rise of Card-Not-Present transactions means the rise of fraud threats

When stay-at-home restrictions were in effect, consumers didn’t shop at the stores and instead switched to digital transactions. Consequently, Card-Present (CP) transactions per active card fell by 10% last year. On the other hand, Card-Not-Present (CNP) per active card increased by 23% and made up for one-third of all debit transactions.

Because CNP transactions are less secure than CP ones (due to lack of customer verification), the growth of CNP during the pandemic led to more fraud incidents. CNP and CP with PIN transactions both made up 34% of debit transactions in 2020. However, while the latter made up only 5% of the total fraud claims, the former were responsible for 81% of the claims. Among the CNP fraud claims, 47% were successfully recovered, meaning that consumers had their money back and merchants lost some revenue.

CNP Saw Many More Fraud Incidents Than CP
Figure 3 – CNP Saw Many More Fraud Incidents Than CP. Source: Pulse

Whenever a fraud claim happens, it brings an unpleasant experience to both the cardholder and the merchant in question. Hence, issuers may want to focus on ensuring that fraudulent transactions don’t even happen in the first place, especially with CNP.

Contactless and mobile wallet transactions are on the rise

According to the study, contactless is projected to be available on 64% of all debit cards by the end of 2021, up from 30% in 2020, and 94% by 2023. Even though contactless volume grew by 6 times in 2020, it still made up only 1.6% of total debit volume. As consumers become increasingly familiar with contactless and the feature is available on more cards, I expect the share of contactless volume to keep that impressive growth pace for at least a couple of years.

Meanwhile, mobile wallet transactions funded debit cards through three major wallets (Apple Pay, Samsung Pay & Google Pay) reached 2 billion in 2020, around 2.6% of the total debit volume, with the average ticket of $23, up 55% YoY. 57% of this mobile wallet volume were made in-app and the rest took place in stores. If we look at the competition between the aforementioned wallets, Apple Pay is the outstanding performer in every metric. In fact, Apple Pay had an overwhelming 92% share of all mobile wallet transactions using debit cards.

Starting 2022, Visa will put in place new interchange rules that are aimed to encourage more tokenized transactions such as mobile wallets. Hence, I expect that when we read the 2023 edition of this study or beyond, we’ll see a more prominent role of mobile wallet transactions in our society.

Contactless Volume Grew 6x But Still Made Up 1.6% of Debit Volume
Figure 4 – Contactless Volume Grew 6x But Still Made Up 1.6% of Debit Volume. Source: Pulse

Why Square paid the big bucks for Afterpay

Last Sunday, Square announced that it was going to acquire Afterpay, the Buy Now Pay Later provider from Australia, in a $29 billion all-stock deal. A lot has been said about this merger and the one bear case that I have seen quite often is that people questioned whether Square could actually build its own BNPL in-house and is wasting $29 billion on this deal. Below is how I think about it.

Before we go further, let’s take a minute to talk about these two companies in general. Afterpay was founded in Australia in 2014 by Nick Mornar and Anthony Eisen. The company allows shoppers to break purchases into four interest-free installments paid every two weeks. Afterpay charges merchants 3-4 times interchange rate in exchange for customer leads and the underwriting of the loans. Merchant revenue constitutes the majority of Afterpay revenue while late fees make up around 9% of the top line. Currently available in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S, the UK and Canada, Afterpay is launching services in a few European countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

Originally started as a payment company with a little credit card reader, Square has grown leaps and bounds over the years to become a publicly traded financial company with over 30 different services, a banking license and over $126 billion in market cap as of this writing. Square’s revenue comes from different sources. Bitcoin makes up more than 50% of Square’s revenue, even though the gross margin is only around 2%. The company sells POS hardware at a cost to merchants and charges them for used services. If merchants and customers want to receive funds instantly, they must pay Square a small fee. Square also offers merchants loans from which it earns interests. Last but not least, there is interchange revenue from millions of transactions processed through Cash App.

Square used to have a BNPL option which was discontinued due to the effects of Covid-19. Then why the sudden change of heart and why wouldn’t Square reactivate Square Installments instead of paying an enormous sum for Afterpay? First of all, it’s about international expansion. While Square is available in some overseas markets, 85% of its GMV is from the domestic front. Meanwhile, more than 50% of Afterpay’s GMV originates from non-US markets. Acquiring Afterpay gives Square quick access to those international markets and reduces reliance on its home market. Plus, it’s not really easy to build up a BNPL service from scratch. In addition to having to acquire merchants and users, to be a BNPL provider, one has to deal with a lot of regulation hurdles. These are the things that currently Afterpay does better than Square in non-US markets. Hence, this purchase will help Square bypass all the trouble and acquire these skills quickly.

Second, customer acquisition. Afterpay’s main clientele includes Enterprise merchants wanting to leverage its popularity with consumers. On the other hand, while Square’s fastest growing segment is merchants whose GMV is higher than $500,000 a year, I doubt they are big enough that we can call them Enterprise. Hence, this acquisition enables the acquirer to move up the ladder and into a new market. The U.S is responsible for 62% and 43% of Afterpay’s active customers and GMV respectively. However, I’d say that in terms of reach to U.S consumers, Square is the far better company in this equation and has multiple touchpoints that it can use to acquire new users (Credit Karma tax, Cash App P2P, Bitcoin trading). Therefore, Square can definitely assist Afterpay in user acquisition. On the other hand, Afterpay gives Square access to the former’s high income customer base in coastal cities where Square isn’t as competitive as in the South.

Third, merchant acquisition and retention. Merchants pay BNPL providers because of not only consumer preferences, but also the new business that these providers bring due to their marketing reach. For instance, Klarna reported 22 million customer lead referrals in the U.S December 2020 alone. This extra revenue is what merchants, especially smaller ones, crave and are willing to pay for. With the Discovery tool from Afterpay, Square can strengthen the relationship with merchants and keep them in the ecosystem. The more merchants they have, the more their Cash App can appeal to consumers and the healthier the whole ecosystem will be. As a result, the addition of the Discovery tool is strategically beneficial to Square.

Last but not least, this merger is about the competition. Square ‘s main challenger in the race to become the Super Financial App is PayPal. Formerly a P2P platform and a primary checkout option on eBay, PayPal has transformed itself into a financial service and a formidable eCommerce player. It provides both merchants and consumers with multiple different services to facilitate in-store and online transactions. With PayPal, shoppers can pay in stores and online with QR Code, tap-to-pay, mobile wallet, debit cards, credit cards and PayPal Credit. In the past few months, the company has ramped up significantly efforts in cryptocurrency trading, one of the selling points of Cash App. Additionally, PayPal recently launched Zettle, its card reader, in the US, a direct threat to Square’s bread and butter. PayPal’s own BNPL, PayPal in 4, has facilitated $3.5 billion in GMV in a few markets since its launch in August 2020, $1.5 of which came in the last 90 days alone. As mentioned above, Square no longer has an installment service.

Outside of the U.S, PayPal and Klarna, the global leader in BNPL, share a lot of market overlap with Square and Afterpay. This acquisition of Afterpay gives Square an instant counterweight to these competitors. Could Square build its own BNPL muscles? Absolutely, I have no doubt about it. But it will take a lot of time and resources for Square to play catch-up. By the time the company could form a respectable presence in the markets, PayPal and Klarna would already sign more merchants, gain more market share and establish a purchase habit as well as brand name with consumers. It would be incredibly tough to overcome these advantages. With Afterpay, Square won’t have to start from scratch and can compete right away with their rivals.

In summary, from my perspective, there are legitimate reasons why Square made such a big splash. Afterpay brings to the table what Square needs for its growth plan and more importantly, it does so instantly. Of course, M&A deals fail all the time. Synergies are often overstated. Cultural clashes tend to be overlooked. Execution doesn’t materialize as expected. Management teams butt heads. All kinds of trouble can happen to derail a partnership. This one isn’t immune to such risks. But I hope that one day we can look back at this deal as an important milestone and lever that propels Square to incredible heights.

Figure 1 – An example of regulatory hurdles that a BNPL provider has to deal with. Source: Afterpay
Figure 2 – Afterpay can help Square move up market. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Afterpay can expand to coastal cities in the U.S and acquire higher income clientele. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Integration of Afterpay into Cash App. Source: Square + Afterpay
Fincog Overview of BNPL Providers, Ranked by Size
Figure 5 – GMV of Global BNPL Providers. Source: Fintechnews
Figure 6 – Klarna’s footprint. Source: Klarna

Consumers’ Digital Wallets – Where Card Issuers Need To Be

In this post, I will touch upon digital wallets & checkouts as well as some market movements that make me believe that it will be strategically important for issuers to occupy consumers’ digital wallets.

Fast checkouts and payments are on the rise

Consumers love convenience. Instead of spending time to fill out addresses and credit card credentials, shoppers can finish the job with just a couple clicks. The same goes for in-store check-outs. It’s a far more convenient experience for consumers to hover the phone or a smart watch over a card reader than to drop whatever they are doing with their phone, reach for a wallet and pick out a card. Granted, even though they may not appeal to less tech-savvy shoppers, these fast checkouts, when absent, may be a deal breaker to the more technologically shrewd crowd. I mean, there has to be a reason why many stores accept the likes of Apple Pay or PayPal, despite losing a bit more revenue. Businesses know that by not enabling convenient payments and checkouts, they risk losing a whole lot more.

The more these payment applications are accepted at stores, the more they become useful to consumers and the more consumers they can acquire. The more consumers these wallets acquire, the more they can appeal to stores. The virtuous cycle keeps going. As they become popular, the mobile wallets become something like downtown Manhattan to card issuers. While it doesn’t guarantee success, being present in consumers’ phone and wallets suddenly becomes more critical. Furthermore, there are developments on the market that highlight the importance of this point, starting with Visa.

A new rule from Visa

Per JP Morgan:

In April 2022, Visa will introduce updates to existing domestic interchange programs with categories and rates for card not present Visa EMV token transactions. This includes both network tokenized transactions and digital wallets. With this update, a roughly 10 basis point reduction will apply for many card not present transactions that are Visa EMV tokenized in most segments.

In some cases, interchange rates for non-token transactions will go up, so while the net benefit may not reach 10 basis points, merchants that do not take advantage of the digital wallet incentive will undoubtedly be leaving money on the table. As ecommerce continues to grow, shifts like these to the overall cost of payments will have significant cost implications and influence a merchant’s product development roadmap.

The gist of this news is that Visa will allow merchants to keep more money from mobile wallet transactions but make them pay more whenever customers have to type in their information and card credentials. A few basis points may not sound much, but if your online sales is $1 million/year, the savings can be up to $10,000. Visa is the biggest network out there, accepted in virtually every store around the world. When the new rule comes into effect in 2022, its impact will be wide-ranging. I expect Mastercard to follow suit soon. The question for issuers now becomes: can they sit idly and let their rivals occupy the valuable real estate on our phones?

Apple Pay

Apple Pay is a proprietary mobile wallet by Apple that enables convenient payments by just a phone tap in stores or one click online. The feature is compatible on iPhone 6, all the models that came after and all Apple Watch. That should cover pretty much every iPhone user in the U.S, which makes up 60% of the mobile market domestically. Since its debut in 2014, Apple Pay has grown increasingly popular over the years. As of January 2021, Apple Pay is available in 90% of stores in the U.S and hundreds of websites, including those of major brands. According to the 2020 Debit Issuer report by Pulse, mobile wallet debit payments in the U.S in 2019 by Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay totaled $1.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion came from Apple Pay. As of this writing, major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, San Francisco & Washington D.C already allow passengers to ride transit with Apple Pay. This kind of integration will only boost its popularity more in the future.

Figure 1 – Apply Pay facilitated most of the mobile payment transactions funded by debit in the U.S in 2019. Source: Pulse

Almost all issuers in the US enable integration of their cards into Apple Pay. American Express lets users who are instantly approved add their cards to Apple Pay immediately. In July 2021, it’s reported that Apple is working on a BNPL service for Apple Pay transactions. Historically, Apple offers a payment plan for its select products & services via Apple Card. Apple Pay Later will allow approved customers to make four interest-free payments due every two weeks or monthly payments at an undisclosed yet interest. Customers can connect their Apple Pay with any card that they want and it’s not required to own an Apple Card. This service will make this mobile wallet even more attractive to customers, though right now whether or when it goes to market remains to be seen.

PayPal

Many people know PayPal as the known P2P platform or that payment option that used to be on eBay. Over the years, PayPal has transformed itself into something much bigger. It now provides a lot of services for both consumers and merchants. No longer restricted to online purchases, consumers can now use PayPal online and in stores with services such as QR Code, mobile wallets, contactless, debit card, credit cards, PayPal Credit and PayPal in 4.

Figure 2 – Discover’s communication to ask customers to link accounts to PayPal

The brand and the scale of PayPal are not to be underestimated. In Q2 FY2021, PayPal processed $311 billion in transactions, almost twice as much as $170 billion in the same quarter two years ago. The company’s YoY growth in transaction volume topped 40% in the last two quarters despite operating at an incredible scale. If you take out eBay, the growth rate was never lower than 45% in 2021. Additionally, there were 403 million active accounts, including 76 million Venmo and 32 million merchant accounts. Venmo’s transaction volume doubled in the last 18 months from $29 billion in Q4 FY2019 to $58 billion in Q2 FY2021. The scale of PayPal is also reflected on how fast they roll out new features. PayPal in 4 was launched in August 2020. Since launch, the service generated $3.5 billion in transaction volume, of which $1.5 billion alone took place in the last three months. Meanwhile, the number of merchants that enabled payments by QR codes leaped from 500,000 in Q3 FY2020 to 1.3 million in the most recent quarter.

On the earning call, the CEO of PayPal highlighted its imminent push into the in-store space.

Clearly, on the branded side, we think we add a tremendous amount of value, things that John talked about, buyer and seller protection, Buy Now, Pay Later at no incremental cost, fraud protection, highest checkout conversion, etc. But we took down rates for basic full-stack processing. That also was reduced somewhat substantially from the 2.9%, plus $0.30 to 2.59%, plus $0.49. And that is going to enable us to aggressively compete for all of the payment processing of the merchants that do business with us.

And you’ve heard us say time and time again, David, that we were going to move into the in-store space. We’re going to move so aggressively in there. We rolled out Zettle in the U.S., is a really beautiful full package. It doesn’t just include card reader but inventory management, sales reads out and allows a merchant to seamlessly load inventory in both their online and in-store locations and then, across multiple channels as well.

And so we’re, obviously, gonna be very aggressive on moving into in-store, and it’s always been part of our strategy. And by the way, if a small merchant does all of their business with us, they can actually see their overall costs come down. And we wanna encourage them to do all of their business with us because we are a trusted platform. They do turn to us, and we price, we think, the right way.

Source: Fool.com

If PayPal successfully becomes one of the de facto checkout methods in stores, given it’s already a popular checkout option online, how would smart issuers ignore the need to get into consumers’ PayPal wallet?

Shop Pay

Shop Pay is the native checkout feature by Shopify. Shopify is an eCommerce platform from Canada. It provides businesses with the tools necessary to build a customized online presence. When merchants list their products on Amazon or Walmart, they just rent a space and have little flexibility for their own branding. Plus, these merchants have to pay numerous fees to the likes of Amazon and Walmart. With Shopify, they pay a monthly subscription and a usage-based fee for some paid services. But stores can keep their own branding and gain more control over their destiny.

Shop Pay works similarly to Apple Pay, PayPal or Visa SRC. Once a credential is stored, customers can use Shop Pay across all stores powered by Shopify. In February 2021, Shopify expanded their checkout feature for the first time to all Shopify-powered stores on Facebook and Instagram. The collaboration was successful that a few months later, they decided to roll out Shop Pay to all merchants on Facebook and Google. This move can bear significant ramifications. Facebook owns the most popular social networks in the world like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Their access to billions of consumers is what retailers want. Google has the dominant market share in search and as a result, a unique access to consumers globally. As these tech giants make a push into eCommerce, Shop Pay will benefit from this partnership and grow even more.

Figure 3 – Shopify’s GMV in Q2 2021 was higher than that of the entire year of 2018. Source: Shopify

Between its launch in 2017 and the end of 2020, Shop Pay facilitated $20 billion in transactions. The cumulative figure increased to $24 billion as of Q1 FY2021 and $30 billion as of Q2 FY2021. As you can see, Shop Pay is growing increasingly fast. The growth of Shop Pay coincides with the growth of Shopify. In the last quarter, Shopify processed more volume than it did in the entire year of 2018. As this company continues to expand and by extension, so does Shop Pay, how long can issuers be absent from this checkout option?

In summary

Engaged customers will add their favorite card to their mobile wallets. The challenge is for issuers that don’t occupy the top-of-wallet position yet. Customers can still rotate cards and choose a certain one at the time of purchase. Hence, being in a customer’s wallet doesn’t mean a card will be used often. Card issuers still need to offer values and work hard to increase engagement. But as the saying goes, you have to be in it to win it.

Thinking about Netflix

Netflix is an amazing business story. It is a $228 billion company as of this writing and a household name in plenty of countries around the world. Talk to people who like to study businesses and many of them will recommend: look at Netflix. The rise of Netflix offers valuable lessons that business students or executives can take inspiration from. With their latest earnings call last week as a backdrop, I want to take some time to look at the streaming service and put down some thoughts.

The Bull Case

This quarter’s numbers weren’t the best that Netflix has had to offer. Overall, its revenue increased 19% compared to a tough comparison of last year buoyed by Covid-19 and stay-at-home restrictions. Operating margin was 25%, almost 300 basis points higher than the same period last year. In total, the streamer had 209 million subscribers as of Q2 2021. Net paid additions stood at 1.54 million with 2/3 coming from Asia Pacific, even though North America market lost almost half a million subscribers. In the last two years, Netflix added on average 27 million subscribers, on par with 2017 and 2018. Given the competition for screen time, it’s remarkable that they manage to add 27 million subscribers a year while regularly increasing prices. One can argue that it’s testament to the health and competitive advantages of the business.

One big advantage that Netflix has over other streamers is unit cost. As the first mover in this market, Netflix’s big subscriber base enables it to stretch content cost over subscribers more than competitors can. The advantage is likely to persist for a while. On the earnings call, management emphasized a few times how Netflix has low penetration in numerous markets. Given how they have added 27 million subscribers per year in the last four, the track record indicates that they will continue to add to their advantages.

Recently, Netflix made several moves suggesting significant changes/additions to their business. Back in June, the company announced Netflix Shop, an online store where customers can buy branded merchandise that is inspired by Netflix’s originals. The company also hired a new Head of Podcasts and a Vice President of Game Development. I can see the rationale behind these developments. Netflix’s originals have a legit following which would be a waste if the company didn’t try to capitalize with merchandise and retail sales, like what Disney does with its IP. Should they build amusement parks like Disney? I don’t think it’ll be wise to spend billions of dollars on physical attractions. First, that’s not what Netflix is good at. They don’t have yet some of the legendary brands/stories such as Marvel, Mickey Mouse like Disney does. Second, the company was long criticized and mocked as Debtflix because of its regular holding and increasing of debts. I am not sure that any news on spending a ton of capital on parks to replicate Disney’s model would be positively received. Of course, having an online store isn’t the same as offering experiences like Disney World or Disneyland does, but it serves as a great and capital-light complement to Netflix’s core business.

On the earnings call, the management team insisted that at least for now, they don’t see these new initiatives as profit pools. Rather, they are meant to support the core subscription business and add values for customers. They said that games would be available to subscribers at no additional cost. The initial position on podcasts and games is consistent with the Netflix brand: great at storytelling, customer-led & subscription-focused operation. I don’t know if game & podcast are the best way to keep customers engaged and lower churn, but it’s a positive sign to see the leadership add more depth to the business.

Well, I would say none of them. That is they’re not designed to be because — but I’ll draw two distinction. There’s things that our consumers love it in our service. So Shonda Rhimes’ future work, we are very confident of. Video gaming, we’re pushing on that, and that will be part of our service, so unscripted, all those things. So think of that as making the core service better. So lots of investment but not a separate profit pool. It’s enhancing the big service that we have.

And then, there’s a number of supporting elements, consumer products, various shopping where we’re really trying to grow those to support the title brands to get our conversations up around each of the titles so that the Netflix service becomes must-have. So they’re not a profit pool of any material size on their own, but they are helping — the reason we’re doing them is to help the subscription service grow and be more important in people’s lives, so I would say really, we’re a one product company with a bunch of supporting elements that help that product be an incredible satisfaction for consumers and a monetizing engine for investors.

Source: Netflix

When asked about Netflix’s position on sports, Ted Sarandos, the Co-CEO of Netflix, said that they preferred leveraging their storytelling excellence in sports to competing for the rights to broadcast. As an investor, I wholeheartedly welcome that position. Their sport documentaries such as Drive to Survive, or Michael Jordan’s The Last Dance are huge hits to the audience. They reflect the ability to tell stories, some of which are completely new and can be found nowhere else. These content pieces are also not littered with ads, something that gels very well with Netflix’s brand positioning. I don’t see any reason why they should stop. What this shows is that Netflix’s management is, at least on this front, prudent with their content investments and knows what their leverages are.

Look, I think we’ve — you’ve pointed it out, but our success with the sports-adjacent properties, like the F1 Drive to Survive, Deaf U and certainly the Michael Jordan doc, those are all examples, I think, of the platform and what it can do to build enthusiasm on what is already viewed to be an enormous business. Drive To Survive expanded the audience for Formula 1 racing pretty dramatically, in both in live ticket sales and TV ratings and merchandise sales, all those things. And I think that that can be applied as long as the storytelling is great. So what’s good about this for us is that we could apply those same kind of creative excellence to the storytelling behind those sports, the personalities behind those sports, the drama that happens off camera.

Look, I don’t know that those sports suffer from being underdistributed, so I don’t know that we would bring that much to them. And just to be clear, I’ve reiterated this a lot, but I’m not saying we’ll never say never on sports. It’s just what is the best use of about $10 billion. And I think that’s what it’s going to cost to invest meaningfully in big league sports.

And that pricing has only gone up since I started saying that, so I believe that that’s likely to hold. But again, I don’t think it’s because those other sports are niche because they’re underdistributed and that we could bring a lot to them. Our fundamental product is on demand and advertising free, and sports tends to be live and packed with advertising. So there’s not a lot of natural synergies in that way, except for it happens in television.

Source: Netflix

Overall, there is a strong case to be made about Netflix’s competitive advantages. If you love to have a management team sticking to their guns and philosophy, so far, Netflix’s has done a pretty good job at that.

The Bear Case

Up to now, Netflix’s revenue is only from subscriptions. To grow revenue, there are only two ways: add more subscriptions or raise prices. Netflix has regularly raised prices over the past few years and management reported that these prices don’t negatively affect churn. However, I wonder how far they can take that approach. A recent survey showed that almost 40% of cancellations on Netflix were because consumers didn’t perceive they got the bang for their bucks. Netflix bulls can argue that it’s just one survey and doubt the legitimacy of the methodology, but we all have friends or family members who cancel Netflix because it got too expensive. Given the pool of alternatives that consumers have on the market, I don’t imagine Netflix has a lot of leeway left to continuously raise prices. In addition, there is something to be said about the quality of content on Netflix. Don’t get me wrong, they have plenty of good movies and shows. But I feel like there are more inferior shows than good ones. When that happens, folks like those surveyed below feel that they don’t get enough value in exchange for their money.

Image
Source: Andrew Freedman

I think Netflix is capable of producing great podcasts. There are synergies between what they have been doing and podcast creation. However, I am less confident in their prospect at games. Games are very challenging. Just ask Google. They shut down their initiative to develop 1st party games for Stadia. I am not saying that just because Google couldn’t crack that code doesn’t mean Netflix wouldn’t. It just means that I have some reservation over what Netflix can do for games. While using games to reduce churn and engage subscribers is a great idea, there are a lot of folks who watch Netflix and can’t care less about games, myself included. As I mentioned above, games require a serious investment without a guarantee for success. A big investment for a subset of subscribers, it gives me some concern and reservation. But of course, you don’t know what works unless you try. I look forward to how this initiative pans out.

On the earnings calls, Netflix management usually paints a rosy picture of lowering churn and increasing engagement. I don’t blame them. That’s what they are supposed to do. However, there are data points that tell a different story. Take engagement. Netflix spent millions of dollars on marketing Army of The Dead just to have a lower number of people sampling the show than Spenser Confidential. On a side note, I have a heightened level of caution whenever I read into Netflix’s metrics. They used to count people who accidentally had a show automatically previewed in their engagement. That’s pretty much not true. They did change the criteria for the engagement metric to be more relevant but does watching a show for a couple of minutes is the same as watching the whole show? In the past, I once wrote about how Netflix deceptively used Google Trends data to make it look like The Witcher was more popular than The Mandalorian on Disney+. These episodes don’t necessarily put me at ease whenever I have to look at reported numbers from Netflix.

While Netflix lost half a million subscribers in North America this quarter, The Information reported that Disney gained subscribers in the same period. Now, the article from The Information hasn’t been confirmed, verified or validated yet, so the jury is still out on its accuracy. But if what is reported holds, even though having an apple-to-apple comparison between the two streamers is always a challenge, Netflix undeniably has competition and in fact, is feeling it. Yet, you often hear Netflix’s management downplay its competition. While it can be good for a company to focus more on its operations than on others, the fact that the management doesn’t straightforwardly acknowledge the level of cut-throat competition baffles me. Combined with the ambiguity of metrics mentioned above, I wonder how much Netflix doesn’t want us to know about the impact of competition.

Summary

As great a business as Netflix is, it still has some concerning aspects to iron out. Admittedly, I am dominantly bullish on Netflix like many others. However, while I have some concerns as laid out above, I often see Netflix bulls blindly optimistic about the company’s outlook, citing their unit cost advantage as invincible. I mean, Amazon has 175 million Prime members use Prime Video. Apple has 600 million subscribers that they can stretch content cost over. Disney in the past couple of years already has amassed more than 100 million subscribers. Netflix’s advantage is real and their management is capable, but in this highly competitive space, future success is not a given. In fact, Netflix needs to be on their A game to stay ahead. I think by trying new initiatives, they are doing that, in their own way. Whether these initiatives succeed remains to be seen, but at least they are not sleeping on their success.